By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE – A sellout crowd will pack John Paul Jones Arena to watch third-ranked Virginia battle second-ranked Duke in a nationally televised ACC men’s basketball game Saturday night.
The scene was quieter in September 2015 when four high school seniors met at JPJ for a workout that matched Ty Jerome and De’Andre Hunter against Kyle Guy and Jay Huff.
“We won,” Jerome recalled this week. “Thanks to Dre.”
It was only two-on-two, but Jerome saw enough in that game realize that the 6-7 Hunter, with his rare combination of size, athleticism and shooting ability, had the potential to do special things at UVA.
“I knew right from that day,” Jerome said.
Guy and Jerome made an immediate impact in head coach Tony Bennett’s program, playing as freshmen in 2016-17 while Hunter and Huff redshirted. But three-and-a-half years after that two-on-two game at JPJ, Hunter has established himself as one of the nation’s premier players.
“It’s been fun,” Hunter said of his rise to prominence.
Now a chiseled 225 pounds, with a 7-2 wingspan, Hunter leads UVA in scoring (14.7 ppg). He’s a fundamentally sound defender who’s capable of guarding multiple positions. He’s second on the team in rebounding and tied for second in assists. He’s shooting 43.2 percent from 3-point range and 52.9 percent overall.
“He’s a complete player,” said Bennett, from whom there are few higher compliments.
Moreover, UVA associate head coach Jason Williford said, Hunter is a joy to coach. “He’s as low-maintenance as they come.”
All of which is why Hunter, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, is projected to be a first-round NBA draft pick whenever he chooses to leave Charlottesville.
“I’m not really surprised, because he’s a hard worker,” said Sean Colson, who coached Hunter in the Philly Pride AAU program. “Anybody who works hard and has talent, you have a chance to become something, and that’s what he’s done.”
A former NBA player, Colson is an influential figure in the Philadelphia hoops world. He’s head coach of the boys team at Martin Luther King High School and also provides individual instruction to players in the Philly area. His pupils include Hunter, who was in the eighth grade when he began training with Colson.
Hunter is a decade younger than his brother, Aaron, whose support has been instrumental in De’Andre’s development.
The elder Hunter and Colson had a mutual friend, a barber. “He told Aaron one day, ‘Man, I got a guy who played in the NBA and played overseas, and now he’s training guys. You always tell me your brother is pretty good. I think you should take him to [the trainer],’ ” Colson recalled. “So, Aaron called and we got together and we talked, and then the rest was history.”
Hunter, an American Studies major at UVA, attended Catholic schools before enrolling at Friends’ Central, a prestigious Quaker school in the Philadelphia suburb of Wynnewood, Pa.
“When he entered as a freshman, he was probably 6-5, and by the time he left he was 6-7,” said Ryan Tozer, head varsity coach at Friends’ Central. “I’d say he was probably 185 pounds, if that, as a senior.”
Even as a freshman, though, Hunter was a revelation.
“I’d never seen a kid so skilled, with such a high basketball IQ, at such a young age,” Tozer said. “He knew how to use screens: when to curl off a screen, when to reject a screen, when to fade off a screen. He always found the open man. He could play with his back to the basket. He could take you off the dribble. He had a nice midrange game, which is sort of a lost art today with kids.
“We knew right away he was going to be a big-time player. And he had a tremendous work ethic too. So being a great kid and having a good work ethic and being skilled, it’s just a recipe for success.”
Hunter, a varsity standout as a freshman, broke his leg in the fall of 2013 and missed his sophomore season at Friends’ Central. As a junior, he averaged 21.6 points and 11.0 rebounds per game, and as a senior he was named Pennsylvania’s player of the year in Class AA. Throughout his high school career, Hunter continued to train with Colson, whose message was simple.
“Just work,” Colson said. “If you work, it’s always going to show. The work always shows, and it may not be right now, but you’re going to get your just due.”
In a city whose elite players are often known for their swagger, Hunter was an exception.
“I used to tease him,” Williford said. “I’d say, ‘You’re not the typical Philly kid.’ “
At Friends’ Central, Hunter “was painfully shy, especially as a freshman, even though he was our best player,” Tozer said. “The injury his sophomore year kind of set him back, so he was still pretty quiet as a junior. But he was one of those lead-by-example guys who instilled courage in everyone else. He wasn’t fiery. His emotions didn’t usually change on the court. You couldn’t tell if he was winning or losing, if he was playing well or playing poorly. But he was as tough and competitive as they come; he just wasn’t real outward with it.”
Hunter said: “That’s just how I’ve always been.”
He chose UVA over such schools as Villanova, Temple, Maryland, Notre Dame, Saint Joseph’s and NC State. Guy, Jerome and Huff had already committed by the time Hunter made his decision during his visit to Virginia in September 2015.
Hunter and Jerome are now virtually inseparable. “If one walks in the building, the other’s probably two seconds behind,” Williford said.
“We’re best friends,” Jerome said. “There’s no one in the world I’m closer to, really – except my family, of course.”
The relationship did not, however, get off to an auspicious start, according to Hunter.
“When I first met him, actually, I didn’t like him at all, because he talked a lot and he was kind of arrogant in my opinion,” Hunter said.
Jerome’s response? “He’s lying. He always liked me from day one. He just likes to tell that story. It makes him more interesting.”
That first summer, Jerome lived with Guy, and Hunter lived with Huff. But when the 2016-17 school year started, Jerome and Hunter became roommates, and they’ve lived together ever since. They’re sharing an apartment this year with three teammates: Huff, Marco Anthony and Mamadi Diakite.
Jerome’s passion is apparent to anyone who watches him play. But don’t mistake Hunter’s even-keeled demeanor, Jerome said, for a lack of competitive fire.
“Me and Dre get into it all the time,” Jerome said. “We were playing a card game last night – it’s called Capitalism – with some other friends, and we started fighting a little bit. We just want to win at everything we do. That’s why we’re so happy we’re on the same team, because I can push him and he can push me, and then we come together on the court and we get to compete together.”
They didn’t start competing together at UVA until last season. On the eve of the 2016-17 season, the coaching staff recommended to Hunter and the 7-1 Huff that they redshirt. They weren’t likely to play much that season, and they could work on getting stronger and honing their skills.
Hunter reluctantly went along with the plan.
“I knew it made sense, but it just stunk,” Hunter recalled, “because all through 12thgrade I was like, ‘I can’t wait to play, I can’t wait to play,’ and the time was almost there, and I couldn’t play. So it was just really tough.”
Jerome said: “I remember the night he found out, we came back to the dorm and he told me, and that’s the most upset I’ve seen him since he’s been here. I didn’t know what to say at first. I just told him, ‘At the end of the day you’ve got look at the big picture. We both know you’re going to be a great player here and you’re going to be an NBA player when it’s all said and done.’ I told him that from day one, and I think he believed that from day one.”
Friends back in Philadelphia advised Hunter to transfer to another school. But he stayed at course at UVA and benefited from the experience.
“It taught me a lot,” Hunter said. “In high school I was just so used to things just coming to me. I was the best player on the team. I could basically do whatever I wanted, and once I got here, everything just changed. It taught me to become more mature. When I first redshirted, I was really upset, I was kind of sulking and didn’t want to practice, didn’t want to lift. But I just matured through that process, and I feel like it really helped me in the long run.”
When he finally took the court for the Wahoos, in 2017-18, Hunter helped them sweep the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. In less than 20 minutes per game, he averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds and was named the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Hunter produced numerous highlights as a redshirt freshman, none more memorable than the buzzer-beating 3-pointer he made to lift UVA to a stunning comeback victory over Louisville at KFC Yum! Center.
The season, of course, did not end as Hunter or the ‘Hoos would have liked. In the semifinals of the ACC tournament, Hunter broke his left wrist on a dunk attempt against Clemson at Barclays Center. He gritted his way through the title game the next night, helping UVA beat North Carolina but back in Charlottesville tests revealed that Hunter’s injury was too serious for him to continue playing.
Without Hunter, Virginia became the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose to a No. 16 seed, falling to UMBC in Charlotte, N.C.
“I use it as motivation, honestly,” Hunter said. “Even though I didn’t play, I still felt like I lost that game, and just seeing my teammates and how they were looking, I was just like, ‘I don’t want to have that feeling next year.’ “
Had he opted to leave UVA after the 2017-18 season, Hunter would have been a first-round pick in last year’s NBA draft. He didn’t believe he was ready, though, and he went back to work on his game.
Last summer, Hunter was among the standouts at the Nike Basketball Academy in California, an invitation-only event, and this week he was named one of the 10 candidates for the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.
The accolades Hunter is receiving, Williford said, are “a testament to his work ethic. I think he really attacked his body that redshirt year. He got stronger. He physically changed his body, worked on some skill stuff, and then his work ethic the last two offseasons has been tremendous.”
When UVA played at Boston College last month, Danny Ainge, the Boston Celtics’ general manager and president of basketball operations, sat in the front row near midcourt to evaluate Hunter. Not all NBA scouts are that visible during games, but Hunter knows he’s being watched and graded every time he takes the court.
“I just try to stay focused on the task at hand,” Hunter said. “I just play my game. It’s kind of like high school. The NBA is a lot different than college, but when I was in high school college coaches came to the games. You just have to play.”
This will be Hunter’s third game against Duke. In the first, last season, he scored 12 points to help the ‘Hoos ended a 17-game losing streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Last month, Hunter scored a team-high 18 points in UVA’s 72-70 loss to Duke at Cameron. At 6 p.m. Saturday, with ESPN’s College GameDay crew in the house, the Cavaliers (20-1 overall, 8-1 ACC) will look to avenge that defeat. Hunter can’t wait.
“I just think when the lights are bright, he wants to be one of the best on the floor,” Williford said.